BWW Review: JEEVES & WOOSTER IN PERFECT NONSENSE, Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre
The Theatre Chipping Norton and Barn Theatre's production of Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense stopped off at the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre in Taunton, Somerset, for two nights during its UK tour.
Based on P. G. Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters, Andrew Ashford (Jeeves) and Matthew Cavendish (Wooster) have big shoes to fill, bringing such well-loved characters to life. The books are widely popular, and the characters perhaps best know for Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie's television portrayal. Not to mention, Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan's performances when the play made its Olivier Award-winning West End debut in 2013.
Of course, this means they have an excellent script to play with. The Goodale Brothers' lines are excellently crafted with no opportunity for humour missed. It's clever and pacy, and the perfection of the nonsense lies in how expertly crafted the whole thing is.
Ashford's main character is Jeeves, but he also takes on Gussie Fink-Nottle, newt enthusiast and fiancé of another of Ashford's characters, Madeline Basset - plus her uncle Watkyn Basset, and the other female character, Stiffy Byng. Jeeves appears the least developed of these characters, but that's perhaps owing to the fact that Jeeves doubles up as the stage manager role so is, by nature, more unassuming and in the background.
Ashford's Gussie is energetic and fun, created as someone who acknowledges and relishes his own eccentricities. He's also excellent as a woman, with the awareness he is a man wearing a dress over his suit, without being so over-the-top as to venture into pantomime dame territory. The characters of Stiffy and Madeline are distinctive through his voice and his gait, rather than relying on different costumes.
His conversation with himself, between the Bassets, seems an inevitability the casting was always building to, and Jeeves (as the actor playing the Bassets), takes it in his stride, seeming to brush over the ridiculousness of it. Ashford towers over his castmates, creating instant visual comedy in the height difference.
Cavdenish has relentless energy and remarkable stamina. He embodies the character of Wooster right down to the tips of his fingers and through his feet. There is no "fourth wall" to break down in this play, with Bertie coming in and chatting to his audience from the start, bringing us back into his game of theatre throughout the story. We get to relish the ridiculousness of his slapdash production alongside him as Bertie Wooster the actor enjoys playing himself. Whether he would like this or not, I think Cavendish's part will be remembered for his outstanding impersonation of a newt.
Throughout the production, he is rarely - if ever - offstage. He jumps through windows, runs backwards and forwards across the stage as Wooster tries to remember where he's supposed to be, and creates a character it's impossible not to love. His performance is explosive.
Not playing a title role, Andrew Cullum is perhaps the unsung hero. His base character is another butler, Seppings, brought in to make up the numbers. In contrast to Ashford's conscious cross-dressing, Cullum transforms into his female character of Seppings' mistress, Aunt Dahlia. His portrayal of Spode is hilarious, with Bertie exaggerating the character's height every time.
The already short Seppings moves from jumping on a stool to being wheeled around on a box. Cullum is left to act mostly with his arms, and does so without losing any vivacity. The simplicity behind his height gains allows nice symbolism as Bertie cuts him down to size in the end. Seppings himself rarely appears and Cullum spends most of his time crafting five other characters, each distinct and thorough.
The three-strong cast works really well together, within the context of actors playing other actors who are less accomplished than themselves, while also playing the characters who are playing themselves. It's a lot to get your head around, but not quite understanding all the layers the performers are working within just makes it more impressive.
Perfect Nonsense is an archetypal farce. Director John Terry wants the audience to "see, feel or enjoy the insanity of every quick costume change, every scenic transformation, every sound effect". He has his wish. Every ridiculous moment is relished by performers and audience alike, to an extent that the Taunton crowd applauded the set at one point.
There are standout moments, courtesy of designer Alex Marker, with some of the best use of props and set I've seen in a theatre. The creation of a motorcar from what's already on stage is brilliant and, during the sequence, a stick with a cabasa on the end and a bell become a remarkable level crossing. A bath is wheeled in through a hatch - which also become a bed and a shop counter - to create an endearing and enchanting scene involving a Rubber Duck and a great way of replicating water.
The sound design, by Harry Smith and Chris Cleal, is another highlight. There are two radio play-esque stands on the stage to create all the sound effects and this is used to dictate the action, really placing the sound centre stage. It's interesting to see how the noises are created, and as much humour is squeezed out of that creation as possible.
The audience are fully involved, being addressed, included and even encouraged to help the floundering Bertie when they can. Sadly, the Tacchi-Morris was far from filled but the exuberance of the audience made up for it, creating an atmosphere like that at a stand-up gig, with their heckling and raucous laughter. It's a shame that such a brilliant production wasn't seen by more people at this particular venue, but those who were there seemed to enjoy themselves.
Cavendish says he wants to "bring this show to people who don't get the chance to go to the theatre very often", and that's exactly what they did in Taunton. Tacchi-Morris is a community venue, working heavily in partnership with the next-door school and a local performing arts college. Young volunteers man the doors and sell the ice creams. The front of house staff there are attentive and cannot do enough to help you.
However, the show suffered a little for visiting the smaller venue. The lighting wasn't quite up to scratch, with certain lines being delivered in semi-darkness because the performance space was not fully illuminated. And while the atmosphere was great, it would have been electric in a full house. But it's important that the tour took in the smaller, community venue.
While the production did not have the pizzazz of a West End show, or even a renowned receiving theatre, the audience deserved to see the high-quality actors and exceptional production in their hometown. Locally, theatre is under threat with plans to redevelop the nearby Brewhouse Theatre being put on hold, after it's been forced to close, reopened, and battled to get local people through the doors.
Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense is riotously funny and a great chance to see top quality theatre at local venues. The actors' performances are virtuosic and the fact the director had fun creating this farce absolutely rings through this visual feast of a production.